Wartime Crocs

I visited the Al Ain Zoo about 150 km from Abu Dhabi. This guide isn’t about the zoo, but about a certain species of crocodile known as the saltwater crocodile (Crocodylus porosus). This is a saltwater species, a thing of which I was not aware. In India, the reptile is the alligator and it infests the fresh water rivers and lakes in the Ganga to the Cauvery. However there is a sprinkling of saltwater crocodiles along the east coast of India. The Al Ain zoo has a saltwater reptile and he seems a ferocious monster. Just looking at him sends shivers down the spine.

The saltwater crocodile is the most ferocious of the reptiles and grows to gigantic size. It is also a meat-eater. 1 particular episode during World War II, brings out the fierce character of the beast. The saltwater crocodile has its habitat in swamps and mangroves near the sea in the complete East Indies, Burma and the Philippines. There’s one tale of an encounter with the Imperial army on the island of Ramree, which is hair-raising and incredible.

The saltwater crocodile as I have previously mentioned is a voracious meat-eater. Additionally it’s extremely strong and big and it isn’t unusual to have a reptile growing to a size of 15-30 feet and weighs over 2000 pounds. It is the largest reptilian predator on earth. The island is near the coast of Burma on the Bay of Bengal. In 1942 the Imperial army struck and not only captured the islands of the Andamans, but also the island of Ramree. The battles in Burma are well documented and the British Indian army went to retreat as the Imperial army struck all across Burma. Countless soldiers of the 8th army were captured. There was not much resistance on the island of Ramree, but its strategic importance was great, as it overlooked the Bay of Bengal.

The island of Ramree was occupied by the Japanese, who put up a garrison there. The island remained under Japanese occupation for 3 decades. By December 1944, the British Indian army had broken the siege of Kohima and Imphal and moved into Burma. The overall staff led by the C in C Field Marshal William Slim was keen that the island of Ramree be captured and an airfield be built there for distribution lines to the troops operating in Burma.

In early January 1945, the Indian 26th division under Major General HM Chambers seized the town of Akyab. A decision was taken for a frontal attack and landing with a gun barrage from ships of the Royal Navy. The Royal Navy drafted the Battleship Queen Elizabeth and lots of other warships for an incessant bombardment of the island and the caves, where the Imperial army soldiers were hiding.

On 14 January the strategy was set into operation and the Royal Navy began a heavy bombardment of Japanese positions. Under cover of the heavy barrage the 71st Indian Infantry brigade of Sikhs under command of Brigadier RC Cotterell assaulted the island. It was a success for Indian arms as the Japanese gave up the beach defences and retreated inwards. espite a determined defence the Imperial army retreated towards the swamps. Perhaps they thought they’d be safe from the advancing Sikh troops of the British Indian army.

A history of the conflict reveals the naturalist Bruce Stanley Wright was along with the Indian military and made meticulous notes. He records that the night of 19th January was particularly harrowing as the Japanese troops retreated towards the swamps. This was a terrible disaster for the Imperial army as the swamps were infested with the salt water crocodiles. Pupils of natural history tell us that the largest concentration of saltwater crocodiles in the world is in the swamps and mangroves of Ramree.

It was a terrible time. The notes of the period show that there was intermittent firing all night with cries of Japanese soldiers as they were attacked and eaten by the crocodiles. No specific figures are available, however, the Guinness book records it as the single most important crocodile attack on humans. It’s estimated that anything from 500-1000 Imperial army soldiers were devoured by the crocodiles. Bruce Stanley Wright has recorded that just about 20 Japanese military soldiers survived and were rescued and according to him up of 1000 Japanese soldiers were attacked and eaten by the crocodiles.

Many historians debunk the tale of the massacre, but some facts do point to a veracity of the episode. However the only authentic source of this information of a crocodile attack would be the notes of Wright. Most soldiers who participate in the assault were illiterate and have died long back. All the same this tale makes interesting reading. I do feel that there is some truth in this incident and though the amount of one thousand soldiers being eaten, may be an exaggeration, Maybe the figure could be near 80-100.

The crocodile certainly inspires awe and I for one can visualize the plight of the Japanese soldiers who were literally between the devil and the deep-sea as they faced the Indian troops and naval bombardment on one side and the crocodiles on the opposite side. This is what makes war history so interesting.